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David Ramsey: Hank Egan, who coached Air Force and LeBron, savors escape from basketball obsession

October 23, 2017 Updated: October 23, 2017 at 10:41 pm
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photo - Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan at the team's media day Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, in Independence, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Hank Egan at the team's media day Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, in Independence, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan) 

Hank Egan is drinking a smoothie outside his favored coffee shop on Garden of the Gods Road and chatting in his rat-a-tat Brooklyn accent and he appears the same as ever until you recognize a startling truth:

He’s not talking about basketball.

You take a closer look at the gray-haired man sitting across the table.

Is this really Hank Egan?

For decades, Egan walked through life as a basketball obsessive, a devotion that earned him induction in the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame. He watched thousands of games, as assistant and head coach at Air Force (1966-84) and San Diego University and as NBA assistant coach with the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers. He watched with distinctive intensity, locked into every intricate detail of the bouncing battle.

He’s 80 now, a grandfather to five. He savors long walks, his wife Judy at his side. He goes to the gym at least an hour each day. He rests and reads at his home on Valley Brook Lane in Kissing Camels.

He carefully rations his exposure to basketball.

“I got myself off the addiction of basketball in the last two or three years,” he says. “I got away from having to watch all the time. It was a deliberate thing. I had a conversation with myself. I said, ‘That’s over.’”

He laughs. He had his pick of 11 games the night before. He watched none.

"Great to have a night off,” he says.

There were a lot of nights. He arrived at Air Force in 1966 as a first lieutenant assigned to facilities. This remained his assignment for only five days when superiors discovered youthful Hank was not meant for such work.

He moved to the academy’s physical education department, where he taught classes and coached the freshmen basketball team. The next season, he was promoted to junior varsity, where he worked with a brash, struggling 6-foot-3 forward from Indiana.

His name was Gregg Popovich.

Popovich told Egan he belonged on the varsity. Egan disagreed. He saw Popovich lacked the muscle and size to play inside, and told the griping cadet – then called Popo – he needed to improve his strength and ball-handling skills.

Soon, Popovich was taking epic runs loaded down by weights. He dribbled in total darkness at the team gym. He willed himself into a guard.

“Gregg takes things to excess sometimes,” Egan says, smiling.

Popovich, pushed by Egan, vaulted from bench-sitter to leading scorer and captain. His climb never stopped. Popovich has earned five NBA titles as coach of the Spurs.

Egan ended up in the NBA, too, coaching the Warriors and alongside Popovich with the Spurs. Egan first retired in 2004, but struggled with his extreme attachment to the game. He wasn’t ready to kick back at Valley Brook Lane.

In 2006, Mike Brown was hired to coach LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Brown, who played for Egan at San Diego, asked his 69-year-old friend/mentor to return to the bench.

This began Egan’s final five years in the game. He witnessed James’ growth into one of the game’s all-time greats. He helped the Cavs win 127 regular-season games in two seasons. He also watched out-of-control expectations engulf and doom Brown, who was fired in 2011.

It was time, finally, for Egan to end his basketball wandering and come home for good to Colorado Springs. His profound attachment to the game remained. For a few years, he watched at home with the same relentless eyes, sometimes shouting at players he knew could not hear him.

After those talks with himself, he stopped.  He still adores the game and believes the NBA of 2017 offers growing improvisation and thrills. The Warriors, with Brown as an assistant, play with an entertaining, flowing flair, and the rest of the NBA is following the leader.

“It’s not a stand-around game,” Egan says. “It’s not as hackerish, not as physical. It’s really a beautiful game now. It’s basketball the way it should be played.”

But he resists the temptation to dive fully back into the game that defined his professional life.

Instead, he dotes on his grandchildren and catches up on sleep. 

The man who escaped his basketball obsession often walks briskly alongside Judy, and they admire the mountains and cherish the pleasures of retirement. They’ve been married for more than 50 years.

But, she reminds him, he’s only been home for the equivalent of 25 of those years. There’s a lot of catching up to do.

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